This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
Sly Stone rose like a rocket in 1968 and 1969, offering supremely funky psychedelic soul, social commentary and instantly classic phrases such as “different strokes for different folks.” But around 1971, things began to change. There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a rambling, rambunctious, rock-funk symphony that begged listeners to dislike it. His concerts were a mess: He showed up hours late (when he showed up at all), performed for a short time and left fans murmuring.
1973’s Fresh seemed to herald a new course. The gay set of percolating mid-tempo grooves took direction from James Brown, children’s rhymes, gospel, Miles Davis’ jazz-soul experiments and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It recalled the funky little band in the Baptist church down on the corner; it was so gentle and socially aware it could’ve replaced Free to Be . . . You and Me in some grade-school classes.
But Sly’s music was just that: sly. Alongside songs he could’ve played in church, like “Thankful n’ Thoughtful” (“Something could have come and taken me away/But the mainman felt Sly should be here another day”), and songs for the juke joint like “Skin I’m In,” there were bass, trumpet and sax notes that bent and twisted in midair, notes that seemed to make their point then immediately get stage fright and turn tail. The twenty-nine-year-old clear-eyed philosopher contemplated life and society, urging social responsibility on songs like “If It Were Left Up to Me” and “Babies Makin’ Babies.” He also spoke of his life: In the first song, “In Time,” he says, “I switched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur.” Meaning the teacher who brought this album to her class would soon be unemployed.
At the time, no one could imagine that Fresh would be Sly’s final great statement, that the ensuing years would see a trickle of increasingly embarrassing records, and, eventually, metaphoric exile. Sly even seems to have goodbye on his mind on Fresh. On the first single, “If You Want Me to Stay,” he sang, “You can’t take me for granted and smile/ Count the days I’m gone/ Forget reaching me by phone/Because I promise I’ll be gone for a while.” Then, like Bobby Fischer, the soul genius slowly dropped off the grid, still thumbing his nose at a world that places him alongside James Brown, Marvin Gaye, George Clinton and Al Green on the Mount Rushmore of soul.